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A Moment of Doubt: The Creators & Educators

Our Alumni of the Year tell us what the learned when they faced a (fake) fire, a blank canvas, a dreaded phone call, and a mother's mortality.

People  |  Nov 4, 2015  |  By Brian Sodoma, Cate Weeks
four portraits

Every year, the UNLV Alumni Association honors Rebels who stand out because of their impressive accomplishments — and this year’s crop certainly doesn’t disappoint. They’ve climbed to the top of corporate ladders. Tackled problems in their communities. And garnered international awards. But sometimes, just as with all of us, their biggest life lessons have come from times they felt a little clueless.

For this series, we've asked our outstanding creators and educators tell us about A Moment of Doubt …


Danielle Kelly… Staring at a gigantic blank canvas

In the summer of 2011 the Neon Museum began the terrific task of creating the Neon Boneyard exhibition. I was in charge of curating the collection and given the tall task of executing the grand exhibition plan for over 80 of the more than 150 signs in the collection. What if all of the people who loved the signs and the museum were disappointed? What if the sign crews didn’t take me seriously? What if I failed Las Vegas and its luminous visual history?

I put on my hard hat and stepped to the middle of the massive empty lot that would someday be the Neon Boneyard. It was a blank canvas, engulfing us all, and that first massive sign was swinging ever so slightly in the breeze. There’s nothing like coming face to face with a 2-ton sign suspended in the air a mere foot away to render you speechless. Channeling my inner 5-year-old, I dug in my heels to play in the dirt.

As executive director of Las Vegas’ Neon Museum, College of Fine Arts honoree Danielle Kelly, ’07 MFA Art helped the museum transition from a small grassroots entity with 500 monthly visitors to one that hosts more than 5,500 visitors per month. A sculpture and performance-based artist, she recently relocated with her family to New Mexico. She is still serving as interim director of the Neon Museum until her replacement is hired.


William R. “Mike” Barton... when I had to put out a fake fire

In my first year of teaching, before the start of winter break, I was helping my classroom of 25 excited 6-year-olds create a chain of red and green holiday decorations. Glue and glitter were flying everywhere, and it was the worst possible time to hear: “There’s a fire in your room.”

Those words came from one big, burly fireman that liked to pick on new teachers while making his rounds for monthly fire drills. Every procedure I knew quickly flew out of my head as the students started to ask, “There’s a fire?” I dropped the chain link decoration on a student’s head and replied, “There isn’t a fire in here.”

The fireman stared through me, reiterating, “There’s a fire,” motioning toward the fire alarm. I finally got the hint. The kids followed rather chaotically, and I think we failed the drill that month, but it was a learning experience.

College of Education honoree William R. “Mike” Barton, ’00 MEd & ’06 EdD Educational Leadership, is currently chief student advisement officer for the Clark County School District and previously served as associate superintendent for the Instruction Unit and the academic manager for the district’s Performance Zone 8. He has worked as a teacher, teacher development facilitator, principal, and dean.


Maile Chapman… when I became my mother’s caretaker

My mother faces early-onset dementia with good humor and grace. I help with medical appointments, prescriptions, exercise, eyeglasses, insurance, safety, clothing, hospital stays, caring for her cat, and, hopefully, making sure she’s as happy as possible.

Frankly, the responsibility is often overwhelming. Alzheimer’s disease is a vortex pulling in those who have it but also their caregivers and family members, undermining and even destroying relationships, careers, physical health, financial stability, emotional wellbeing, and more.

I cringe at describing her illness as a hardship for me — because it is her suffering that matters most — but I’m compelled to share these details so that I can also say, as often as possible and with the voice of hard-won experience: find a caregiver support group. Even if you don’t want to talk about your own situation, just listen, because shared information is the best way to improve quality of life for yourself, your loved one, and everybody else.

College of Liberal Arts honoree Maile Chapman, ’10 PhD English, is the author of the novel Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, a finalist for the PEN Center USA literary award in fiction. She is an assistant professor of English at UNLV and artistic director of UNLV's Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute.


Hannah Birch… on how to make the call

I had hired a freelance photographer and sent her to Mali to meet up with one of our reporters. I still couldn’t quite believe it — me, hiring someone and sending them to Mali. Africa. She was a seasoned pro, expecting me to direct her like a photo editor would. I had exactly zero experience doing that.

 One day she wanted to talk on the phone and I was terrified I was going to embarrass myself. (Sidenote: I love email. I fantasize about worlds where everyone communicates only via email.) I wrote one very pathetic email about how I was new to ProPublica and didn’t know what I was doing and, really, she should just talk to my boss instead. Then I sighed, deleted that email, and Googled “how to call Mali.”

I managed to contain my surprise when the photographer sounded like she believed I knew what I was doing. We worked out assignment details and renegotiated the contract fee. It was a nice conversation. Nobody died. And now I know how to make a call to a remote village in Africa.

Greenspun College of Urban Affairs honoree Hannah Birch, ’12 BA Journalism & Media Studies, is a web producer for ProPublica in New York. She earned the prestigious Pulitzer Prize less than two years into her career for being a key player during the Seattle Times’ breaking news coverage of the tragic Snohomish County mudslide in March 2014.